Most people can say that the teen years were never easy. Adolescence is a time of evaluation, decision-making and carving out a place in the world. There are joys and challenges in raising teens in foster care. Some challenges mirror those surrounding biological families. However, many teens in foster care have lived for years with neglect and abuse. They have built walls around themselves to provide the protection that they have not had.
Rene' and Cole Clarke of Castle Dale have provided a home to many children over the years, in addition to their three biological children.
"When we started as foster parents, we only wanted younger kids," says Rene'. "Eventually we opened up our home to a 15-year-old girl who was flunking school and had been in some trouble. She has since become the best role model you could ever ask for. She just needed someone to stand behind her and help her to realize she was worth something."
The Clarkes say the joy of watching these teens mature is priceless: watching them earn improved grades at school; taking pride in their work and seeing them come to realize that they are deserving of the good things that come their way.
The Utah Foster Care Foundation provides training for foster parents on issues such as abuse and neglect, dealing with grief, and effective discipline.
While there is no secret to success, the advice foundation workers offer is to love and care for the children like they were your own. Listen to them and talk with them without time limits. Explain decisions. Keep the lines of communication open. Foster families also come together to provide peer support to each other through "Cluster Groups" in Carbon and Emery Counties.
Foster parents help children with visits to the doctor and dentist, and with teens, families are also encouraged to help them establish their own banking accounts and employment.
"All adolescents in the child welfare system are offered independent living courses, beginning at age 16, to prepare them to exit the system at age 18" says Terri Harris, Independent Living Specialist with the Division of Child and Family Services. "The classes are offered twice a year, once in Emery County and once in Carbon County, through the USU Extension."
The Carbon-Emery area has a critical need for foster parents to open up their homes to older children. The primary alternative to placing teens with a foster family is placement in group homes, sometimes called residential treatment centers. The state of Utah and the foundation believe that as much safety as these centers offer, the ideal placement is in the community with a family who can love and nurture these teens, at a vulnerable time in their lives.
The Clarke family agrees. "Our daughter in foster care knew we believed in her and because of that, she didn't want to disappoint us," says Rene' Clarke. "She is now going to college and living on her own, but she still comes back home to us almost every weekend. She calls us mom and dad. Without a good foster family, other kids in this situation don't know the way to go."
"A kid is still just a kid," says Clarke, and that there is proof that bonding can happen even with older children. She says that having a supportive male figure also has helped to maintain a sense of decorum in their home.
"Everything will never be 'happily ever after,'" she adds. "Things will not be perfect but the connection will never go away." Clarke says that their home has seen many different races and religions and, as a result, their biological kids know no discrimination.
Clarke is passionate about what she and her husband do. "The need is so immense that nobody is exempt from the responsibility. These kids represent our future".
Foster parents are reimbursed for the costs associated with caring for children in foster care and Medicaid provides health insurance. Anyone interested in finding out more about helping teens should contact Greg Cowan of the Utah Foster Care Foundation at 636-0210. Cowan can supply more information and even put you in touch with a foster parent in the Carbon-Emery area who is serving teens.